County Board chairman files lawsuit against Co. Exec. Abele over alleged pay changes, budget meetings

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MILWAUKEE COUNTY -- Milwaukee County Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb has filed a lawsuit against Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, for his "continued refusal to appear before the public in committee meetings" on the Milwaukee County budget, "as required by law" -- and allegations he made changes to Milwaukee County employees' pay, which exceeds his authority under state statute.

"If you were simply reasonable and would come, we wouldn't have to resort to this," said Milwaukee County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb says of meetings missed by Abele.

Lipscomb says the County Board is requesting Abele's presence so they can ask him questions about his proposed 2016 budget. Abele is refusing, saying it would be unproductive -- sending members of his staff instead.

"This is really a matter of disrespect," a County Board member said.

"We've repeatedly asked, what are the questions? What are the questions you'd like to ask, so we can answer them?" said Abele.

Reaching a breaking point, Lipscomb has now filed suit.

"No one wants to file a lawsuit. We wish that people would be reasonable and would comply with the law voluntarily," said Lipscomb.

Milwaukee County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb

Milwaukee County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb

Lipscomb issued the following statement to FOX6 News in announcing the filing of this lawsuit:

“We are forced to respond to the Executive’s overreach and his creation of a shadow system of compensation to increase the pay of his political appointees, as well as his continued refusal to appear before the public in committee meetings as required by law.

We file this action because our citizens respect the checks and balances in their government, and the County Executive is not above the law. With today’s action, we ask the Courts to hold the County Executive accountable to the law.”

Susan Crawford, a partner at Cullen Weston Pines & Bach remarked:

"There is a disagreement about the law, a dispute between two branches of government, and it is appropriate that the courts settle the matter."

In addition to the budget meetings issue, the lawsuit accuses Abele of "refusing to implement compensation policies enacted and directed by the County Board," and "taking actions with respect to the compensation of certain Milwaukee County employees that conflict with County Board policies."

In filing the lawsuit, Lipscomb hopes to "clarify the scope of the County Board's authority over matters related to compensation of employees."

Abele transportation meeting

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele

According to the suit, on November 12th, 2013, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors approved the 2014 budget -- and pay grades were adjusted for five Milwaukee County employees. For example, the airport director and parks director were moved from one pay grade to another. Abele vetoed this measure, according to the suit, and the County Board moved to override that veto.

The budget and pay grade policy became effective on January 1st, 2014.

The suit alleges that Abele hasn't allowed the salaries to be adjusted to comply with the policy, and that he has "caused changes in the compensation of certain employees that conflict with the policies established by the County Board." Additionally, the suit states that under Abele's direction, Milwaukee County's human resources director has developed alternative pay rates for employees that "conflict with the policies authorized by the County Board."

The suit says on September 24th of this year, the County Board adopted a resolution prohibiting the establishment of these alternative pay rates for employees except as authorized by the County Board, and requiring the human resources director to report to a board committee about the steps taken to carry out the County Board's directives -- and report the salaries and pay grades of employees.

That resolution was returned to the County Board on September 29th -- and it was not signed by County Executive Abele.

Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors

Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors

On October 15th, the human resources director provided a report to a County Board committee "describing a new, comprehensive set of County-wide market-based salary ranges," according to the suit.

The suit alleges that Milwaukee County's Department of Human Resources, under Abele's direction, without obtaining board approval, "implemented a new compensation model and adjusted compensation rates for employees in conflict with policies established by the board."

It was discovered that employees assigned to certain pay grades were being paid more than the current maximum salary for their respective pay grades -- without board authorization.

Back to the issue of the missed budget meetings -- the lawsuit makes specific reference to County Board meetings not attended by County Executive Abele -- when his attendance was deemed necessary to provide information and answer questions from the board on the 2016 budget proposal -- including a meeting of the Committee on Finance, Personnel and Audit on October 13th and October 16th, and another meeting of the committee on October 16th.

On September 30th, Abele delivered an address on his proposed $1.375 billion 2016 budget -- and Lipscomb said that event was unusual, because it came prior to the County Board's receipt of that budget proposal.

"We've certainly had calls, and people who stopped in here thinking it was here today or who've called, saying 'what are these two different events?'" said Lipscomb, on the day of the event.

Abele was set to deliver the official presentation of his 2016 proposed budget to the full Milwaukee County Board on October 1st -- one day later.

As for the accusations regarding employees' pay -- according to the suit, state statute shows it is the County Board that has the authority to provide, fix or change the salary or compensation of county employee.

In the lawsuit, Lipscomb asks that "a declaratory judgment" be made as it relates to state statute and Abele's power to make changes to Milwaukee County employees' pay.

He is also asking that Abele be restrained from fixing or changing the compensation of Milwaukee County employees.

The Milwaukee County Executive's spokeswoman issued this statement to FOX6 News:

"The county executive is incredibly proud of the team whose great work allowed him to offer a budget that gives pay raises across the board, holds taxes flat for the fifth year in a row, and makes significant investments in economic development, transit, and mental health. County staff has spent hours answering the County Board’s questions about this budget. During that time surely the board heard about programs that could benefit from the hundreds of thousands of dollars in public resources they are instead choosing to spend on a lawsuit that seeks to cut pay for county workers."

Monitor FOX6 News and for updates on this developing story.

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